Student and Alumni Stories

Current Students

Interview with Cathy Tran

By Colin Michael Lynch

My name is Cathy Tran, and I am a senior studying Neuroscience and Cognitive Science (NSCS) and I’m on the neurobiology track. I work in the lab of Dr. Lynne Oland and Dr. Leslie Tolbert where we study the interactions between neurons and astrocytes. I am also in the Undergraduate Biology Research Program (UBRP) and serve as UBRP Ambassadors President. As I love working with people, I eventually want to go to pharmacy school and use my knowledge of the brain to prescribe drugs that can help people cope with various cognitive disorders. I also love taking pictures and playing music on the horn, which I do with a few ensembles here at the U of A.

What got you interested in science and the brain?

There wasn’t a specific instance that got me interested in science. I have just always loved to see the results of experiments. I participated in science fairs from elementary through middle school and high school. Early on, I was interested in how music affected the brain. As a fifth grader, I conducted an experiment where I would have people play music for five minutes and I found that this helped increase people’s memory when playing the card game “Concentration.” It was a very simple project through which I learned about the scientific method and how the mind worked.

I started learning about the brain in my senior year of high school. That year I took a Research Methods class where we were paired with faculty members from the University of Arizona to work in their labs. I was paired with my current lab with Dr. Lynn Oland and Dr. Leslie Tolbert. They first had me do larval locomotion before I adopted my own project investigating the effect of neuronal reduction on glial cell morphology. At the end of my freshman year, I decided that I had to join the NSCS major – before, I was just doing pre-pharmacy coursework.

Have these experiences helped prepare you for a career in pharmacy?

Yes, they have. While I do not plan on going into research pharmacy; I imagine myself doing clinical pharmacy in a rural area, research has given me the foundational skills necessary to solve problems and ask people the right questions. It has also given me a better understanding of how the brain is put together and taught me how to communicate scientific ideas to a general audience. As I prefer social interactions over laboratory work, my main career goal is to be a resource for people by connecting them to each other so that they can find information more easily. I want to have one-on-one conversations with people where I get to help them understand how the brain works and how it interacts with various drugs.

What are your next steps for getting to pharmacy school?

After I graduate, I plan on taking a gap year before going to pharmacy school. I want to work as a pharmacy technician and volunteer at the El Rio Health Center as well as the Arizona Poison and Drug Center because they represent different aspects of pharmacology that I haven’t been exposed to yet. I’ve also applied to be a Med-Start Counselor. It’s a program for incoming high school seniors who may or may not have been exposed to the world of healthcare. They are chosen from areas of Arizona that are underprivileged or under-resourced, which are usually the more rural areas. They live in the campus dorms for six weeks in the summer and go on field trips, take classes, and perform experiments together. I want to help guide them as a counselor and give back to that community since it was because of Med-Start that I reaffirmed that I wanted to be a pharmacist.

Has your NSCS degree helped prepare you to do that sort of thing?

Yes, definitely! The NSCS community has especially helped my development. The faculty here are great, and the students inspire me to be better all the time. There is no one person who is the “smartest”; everyone here is intelligent and talented. It is very easy to go up to any one of them and ask a question when you do not understand something. We have the best supportive community and everyone just becomes friends. I don’t think that I could have made it through NSCS 200 without the help of my friend Kendra Liu, who worked in the same lab that I did. There are also many opportunities for professional and academic development. My experiences have included participating in the NSCS Summer Research Program under UBRP and attending a Society for Neuroscience Conference. They were invaluable. I hope that many students take advantage of the opportunities while they are here.

Interview with Jake Matthews

Inteview by Colin Lynch

What are your professional goals?

My professional goals are to graduate with a neuroscience degree and then apply to med school and then hopefully become a successful doctor. I am not sure what kind of doctor I want to become yet, but I have shadowed an anesthesiologist and an orthopedic surgeon. I know I want to become some kind of surgeon because I’m a born, natural leader. When you shadow different kinds of doctors in the O.R., you see that the surgeons are the leaders of the room and I think I would be very good at that job. I am also very good with my hands due to my sports background and want to help those people who desperately need medical care.

Do you think that your background in football has given you some of the skills necessary to have a career in medicine?

Yes it has. I have been playing sports since I was four years old and I have spent thousands and thousands of hours honing the craft and gaining fine and gross motor skills throughout my whole body, which helps with hand-eye coordination. This is one reason why I think I would make a good surgeon, as I’m good with my hands. It has also taught me discipline, it teaches mental toughness, and it teaches how to be passionate about something. If you want to succeed, get accepted to medical school, help out society, and so on, you need to be passionate about what ever it is that you want to do. Sports have taught me that if you aren’t passionate and don’t prepare adequately, then you are going to be exposed by your opponent and that opponent may be a test in school.

Has seeing all the athletes get injured around you inspired you to pursue medical school?

Yes! In football especially you see all these ACL tears and other injuries constantly. In fact I have been injured myself. I dislocated my mid-foot and had six screws surgically implanted in my left foot. I was out for eight months. Going through that time when I was on crutches for two months and rehabbing every day was a struggle. To have incredible healthcare professionals that help get you back to where you were in the first place is amazing. Without them, I would be limping around for my whole life. It’s so cool that it gives me the chills just thinking about the quality of life you can give someone by taking care of them with your knowledge and ability to practice healthcare. Doctors aren’t only curing a physical body; they are curing minds. Healthy mind, healthy body, after all.

Is that one reason why you chose the neuroscience and cognitive science degree so you can understand that mind-body connection?

That is one reason, yes. I am so interested in neuroscience because I am interested in all the entities of the brain … The brain is one part of the body that we know so much about and yet know so little about it at the same time. There is so much left to be learned and so much left to research, and that mind-body connection is one of the things we know very little about. But the degree is helping to draw some of the relationships between the two.

Is your NSCS degree preparing you in other ways for medical school?

Yeah, I think so. I just spoke with someone who is going through medical school right now and just finished the neuroscience block and they said that it is the hardest block in med school. I will already have the background I need to get through that relatively easily so that the physiology or the anatomy block becomes the hardest for me.  

Do you have any advice for people who want to become a student-athlete?

I could go on for hours and hours on that. I think that the biggest thing people need to realize is that it’s going to be hard, quite possibly the hardest four years of your life. Medical school may not even be as hard. There you put in a lot of hours and use a lot of brainpower, but your body is feeling healthy. As a student athlete, it’s not just your brain that hurts, but everything else too. Also, when you get to Division 1, you are working as part of a multi-million dollar business, which kind of takes the fun out of it. You as a player, then, need to put the fun back into it with your teammates and pick each other up when you’re down. You also need to hold onto your passion and the reason why you started playing sports in the first place, as you won’t get through your sport without it.

Interview with Liz Burke

Interview by Benjamin Robira

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself (interests, hobbies, places you’ve lived, etc.)?

I was born, in Massachusetts and grew up in Tucson. I’ve lived in Tennessee and California for brief periods of time. Hobbies are my hobby… gardening, dance, music, art, metallurgy, crafts, animals, yoga, martial arts, outdoor activities, reading,...

What got you interested in art and science?

The more I think about it, the things I used to do as a child ended up making good tools to apply to science. Once I finally realized much of my interests had comfy nooks in science, I plunged myself into the science aspect.

Do you think that the two complement one another?

Yes! They build on each other so well that I can’t help but see through scientific lenses when I paint and vice versa.

Do you think you will combine the two in your professional life?

I’m not sure I CAN’T at this point.

Has your NSCS degree helped inform your art, and vice versa?

Absolutely! It’s also helped me hone in on HOW to lay visual concepts so they can be (hopefully) widely understood by ANY of the other science branches. The more I learn, the more artful science becomes for me. The more I paint (or whatever medium), the more I see the science in art.

Do you think being creative is an important attribute to have?

I certainly hope so, personally. Yes, I believe one could argue it’s at times a very useful tool especially in science, physics, technology, etc..

What advice do you have for people who want to be artists and scientists?

Be courageous, even if you don’t think anybody else cares. The impression and attention of the world is not what you should focus on. If something is important to you, practice learning how to reach out to others that already feel similarly.

Don’t let fear close the doors of your passions.

(my personal fav) Don’t be constrained by the viewpoints (of variable open mindedness) of others. Allow yourself to grow stronger with the flexibility that creativity invokes.

The most beautiful part about art to me is that it can tear down walls (literal and figurative) and fortify others. Art is flexible and variable. It can simultaneously shape and reflect history. It can trigger emotions in others that might not even speak the same language or live during the same time. It can reveal the simple yet awesome connectedness of things as well as invoke meaning by individuals without the “right” words.


Casey Primeau, NSCS alumnae 2016

Development and Aging Emphasis
Certificate in Developmental Disabilities
Currently: Graduate Student at Boston University, Entry-level Doctor of Occupational Therapy

Occupational Therapy (OT) may not be a common career choice amongst NSCS students, yet the interdisciplinary, inquisitive nature of an NSCS degree lends itself perfectly to this creative, scientific profession. In my chosen career path, I combined a love of brains with a love of art and play. I label the brachial plexus on cadavers, rehabilitate people with spinal cord injuries, and analyze the basis of sensory integration; I also mold play-doh, swing on jungle gyms, and dance! My current work involves supporting college students with traumatic brain injuries in their academic and professional development by using iPads and assistive technology. OT is a career that involves helping people who have an injury or disability learn or relearn to do things they need to do or enjoy doing in daily life. How does that involve neuroscience or cognitive science? Because OT can focus on motor, sensory, social, or cognitive challenges, the concepts of neuroanatomy, development, and psychology guide many interventions established in evidence-based practice. I am so thankful for the preparation NSCS has given me for graduate school. The Certificate in Developmental Disabilities and doing research in labs helped me learn to conduct lab-work and work directly with clients, opportunities that many other students do not get access to at other schools! I move forward confidently to take four hours of Neuroanatomy each week, as I thankfully learned a lot from studying the Brain Zoo at outreach events with NSCSAS and from neuroanatomy class with Dr. Tolbert!

Gaby Lacy, NSCS alumnae 2015

My favorite part about the Neuroscience and Cognitive Science (NSCS) major was the way the department allowed me to shape my own educational path. The variety of emphasis options and the wonderful undergraduate research opportunities gave me more control over how and what I was learning in my undergraduate studies. My classmates were enthusiastic and driven, and our faculty encouraged us to explore our science interests outside of the classroom. I feel this major greatly developed the critical thinking skills that will prepare me for my medical school education.

And an update – Gaby has been accepted to med school at UA, Emory, University of Michigan, and UCSF.  Great options all!




Rebecca Determan, NSCS alumnae 2016

The NSCS program is a great way to enhance your education at the University of Arizona. I learned valuable life and transferable skills throughout my 4 years in this program. I am currently starting graduate school, and could not be more thrilled to continue my education with the skills I refined in NSCS. NSCS has a lot of amazing opportunities to choose from, and my biggest piece of advice is to explore your major, make friendships, participate in internships, and more! I went as far as being on the UA Cheerleading and Mascot team! The UA NSCS program will prepare you for your future, you just have to be ready for the crazy ride!